Written by Richard LaGravenese
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds
Liberace: I hate my life sometimes, I really do.
It all starts innocently enough, or as innocently as is possible given the surroundings, in a West Hollywood gay bar, or I should say, Steven Soderbergh’s version of a gay bar anyway. A yellowed filter sets the tone as a bright light burns behind the bar for contrast, and one man is approached by another for a chance meeting that will change his life forever. Instantly, you know just by sight alone and without any question that BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is a Soderbergh film. What you don’t know at this point is that you’re about to see Soderbergh at his absolute best.
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is essentially a love story but one unlike any I’ve ever seen. The relationship between famed piano virtuoso, Liberace (as played in the film by Michael Douglas), and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), if we are to believe everything we see in this film, is truly one of the most troubled and damaging in the history of relationships. As it is told and shown here though, for all its difficulty, the love they shared was also the most beautiful either had ever known. Perhaps they just didn’t know what to do with it when they found it.
Or perhaps they doomed themselves from the very start. I will say that I am very pleased that Soderbergh, along with screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese (whose work has never been this direct, honest or subtle), took some liberties with the ages of their characters. There are only 26 years difference between Douglas and Damon. When Liberace met Thorson, there were 40 years separating them, with Liberace being 58 in 1977 when they met. (You do the math!) Their love story is a lot to get past but I doubt any viewer would have gotten past their age difference if they had cast it accurately.
Not too long after meeting Thorson, Liberace invites him to move in, which is his first mistake (if you ignore the 40 years between them). Thanks to some very convincing chemistry between Douglas and Damon, it is clear that there is an attraction, as well as affection, developing between them. All the same, and perhaps again because he just doesn’t know how to handle genuine emotion, Liberace invites him onto his payroll at the same time as he invites him into his bed. Thorson moves in right away and the rest of the film focuses on the time they spent together.
Misguided intentions run rampant throughout BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, and do, on some level, make for a strong case for gay marriage equality. Let alone that both of these gentlemen grew up without much love in their lives but, as gay men, especially as gay men in the public spotlight, they were not free to confirm that love openly. And so they sought out other ways to solidify their bond, from Liberace proposing adoption to Thorson so that they can technically be family, to Liberace eventually funding a plastic surgery overhaul so that Thorson would look more like Liberace himself, as though they were again, related. They both want to belong but they are going about it all wrong.
Communicating this delicate balance requires a focused screenplay, with a strong sense of purpose, as well as delicate yet determined direction. It also requires two incredibly fearless performances to make any of this circus seem even remotely believable. I would never think to pair Douglas and Damon in this way but they both blew me away. In fact, when they first meet, you can feel the sexual tension between them burning when Liberace stares directly at Thorson and states emphatically and cheekily, “That’s what I’m all about. I love to give people a good time.”
As Liberace, Douglas is flamboyant and unapologetically so. He never plays him as a joke though. This is a man who had a fancy for much younger boys, who enjoyed decadence and excess, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of a king and who was raised, not so surprisingly, by an overbearing mother. Douglas plays Liberace with tons of charm and charisma, but also with a great deal of awareness of how Liberace lived in a constant state of performance. He was lying to his public about his sexuality so as not to destroy his career and sadly, performance became a defense mechanism at home as well. At one point, it isn’t clear whether he’s fooling everyone else or just himself.
Clearly, Douglas has the showier role, and he prances up and down his stage in full glory. So it becomes Damon’s part to ground the picture. He is young and naive and just looking to be loved. Of course, once you add spoiled rotten to being loved, it can be difficult to separate the two. Thorson, whose biography this film is based upon, became a drug addict while he was with Liberace and, by the time their relationship was at its worst, was nothing more than a pill-popping, stay at home sex toy, and one that was getting older at that. Damon gives a very ernest performance, which allows us to see his life slipping further and further away from him in great detail.
Together, Douglas and Damon are the real deal, made only more believable by the brilliantly recreated sets and costumes that surround them, as well as the incredible supporting cast. Scott Bakula and Dan Aykroyd give solid performances but their show is stolen by, firstly, Rob Lowe, as a permanently stoned, yet highly skilled plastic surgeon, who can barely even keep his eyes open. And then there’s Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother. She is entirely unrecognizable, and with only three scenes in the entire film, she leaves a mark that is almost as unforgettable as the two stars.
Soderbergh is very selective in what he shows us in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. Bits of information about Liberace’s life and his relationship with Scott are efficiently thrown in here and there so that you feel as though you’re getting the full picture of their lives. More importantly, by not focusing too intensely on any one piece of Liberace’s legacy, the relationship is allowed to feel more real as the central focus of this almost unbelievable tale. After all, amidst all of this excess and all this melodrama, were just two men from Wisconsin looking for love and hoping to hold on to it. That Soderbergh was able to find that center underneath all the glamour and glitter is what makes his work here truly dazzling.